Nine hours at the border offers pause for thought
08.07.2011 - 08.07.2011 23 °C
Waking refreshed after sleep broken only sporadically by the rocking of the carriage or sudden halt breakfast was enjoyed overlooking the rolling hills and rocky outcrops of southern Siberia.
By late morning we had passed through Zagustay and along the pine and birch lakeshore of Goose Lake. Some 4,000 miles east of Moscow we arrived at the uneventful Russian border town of Naushki. Curiously we were asked to leave the train so that our carriage attendant could sleep. Why she required an empty carriage, a luxury we had not required, was unclear and as some French travelers commented ‘encore bizarre’. Yet as our forced disembarkation offered a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs we complied, spending the majority of our remaining roubles on supplies for the remaining journey and surprisingly good Russian ice cream.
Two hours later we returned to the station just in time to see our carriage rolling out of the station. Even though we knew the carriages were being shunted and prepared for the journey to Mongolia (with only two of our compartments actually continuing the journey) the sight of all of one’s luggage disappearing into the distance is slightly concerting. Yet, finally we were able to return to our compartment, spending a further five hours there, as immigration and customs officials inspected passports and bags.
As with apparently all bureaucracy in Russia this seven hour departure process appeared typically inefficient, designed more to fill the working day of the officials (who only had to process two trains, with two carriages each, per day) rather than ensure rigorous checks and searches were carried out. Yet with no alternative it gave time to reflect on our journey to date.
After spending seven nights on various trains crossing Russia, nearly double those spent in hotels, we could certainly understand the appeal of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As a highlight not only of our 2011 travels but of all our journeys, through the years, we were not the only passengers planning a return journey; which for us would be in the depth of winter, non-stop from Vladivostok to St Petersburg. Watching ever changing vistas, towns and villages pass by the romance of the train is easy to understand, so too the desire to ride non-stop.
As one progresses across a vast landscape the more one feels to be travelling with if not friends, fellow travelers, eager for conversation and with a common goal in sight. For all the English speaking east bound passengers we met this goal was the Naadam but it was curious how often our paths interconnected with those of other travelers. In the compartment next to ours a New Zealand lady was telling me of a Norwegian couple that they had been chatting to on their journey from Moscow. It was our friends from the bathhouse. I have only really experienced these social travel connections before in Bhutan, where a few tourists are visiting a small number of sights and inevitably meet each other, even if travelling independently. The Trans-Siberian Railway encourages this kind of interaction.
Yet, whilst the train has both fulfilled a lifelong desire and delivered a great travel experience Russia too has lived up to its hyperbole. Wondering Red Square, at night, with the Kremlin gently lit and the copula domed St. Basils is a wonderful tourist sight. Crossing Siberia with endless grassy plains and the desolation of Olkhon Island offered an insight into both the beauty and barrenness of this place of exile. Yet whilst the physical landscape was as vast as we had expected the dourness of the Russian people has also lived up to the western stereotype. True, if one perceived the Russians who we spent time with were, typically, friendly and helpful. Yet, it is also true that they typically do not smile or even acknowledge those passing by, even after sharing a compartment with them for three days. Whilst this is clearly the ‘Russian way’, along with the frustrating and often superfluous bureaucracy and high cost of living it does not generate a warmth for the country, as most of the eastern European countries visited on this trip have. So as our train finally crosses over the border and into Mongolia we reflect on a vast country that has delivered all nearly all of our preconceptions.
Clearing passport control and immigration took a relatively short two hours. Able to stretch our legs on the platform at Sükhbaatar we were suddenly amongst an Asian looking people happy to smile and acknowledge us. Small children seemed fascinated by the strange westerners that were amongst them, even though this train makes our journey every day.
After spending nine hours at the border we were finally able to commence our journey on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. It was not until 1947 that construction of the 1,200 mile Trans-Mongolian extension began. The line reached the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar by 1949. With relations between the Soviet Union and China relaxing in the early 1950s construction began on the long planned extension of the line to Beijing. Spanning the Gobi Desert by 1956 the railroad connected Moscow and Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. Yet, this success was short lived. The Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s closed the border with service suspended until the 1980s.
Yet, with the border now very much open and as the train continued its journey south a change of scenery was quickly upon us. Forests thinned out into the lush, green pastures of the fertile Selenga Gol basin. By the time that sleep was upon us we had already seen our first Nomadic Mongolian, replete with Ger, horses or four-wheel drive vehicle. We had only travelled a few hundred miles, from the Russian border, but the change in both scenery and people was absolute. Tomorrow would see us arrive in Ulaanbaatar in readiness for the Naadam.